Coronavirus claims three more lives in Iran

Tehran (AFP) - Coronavirus claimed three more lives in Iran, taking the country's overall death toll to 15, as President Hassan Rouhani called for calm Tuesday and teams were deployed to disinfect public spaces.

The Islamic republic has been hit by the deadliest coronavirus outbreak by far outside China.

Its neighbours have imposed travel restrictions and strict quarantine measures after reporting their first cases in recent days -- mostly in people with links to Iran.

The United Arab Emirates was the latest to clamp down on Tuesday, halting all passenger and cargo flights to and from Iran, a similar move to other surrounding countries including Armenia, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey.

Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday last week when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.

The government has pledged to be transparent after being accused of covering up the outbreak, dismissing a lawmaker's claim the toll could be as high as 50.

The health ministry confirmed three new deaths and 34 new infections on Tuesday, bringing the overall tally to 15 deaths and 95 cases.

Two of the newly reported deaths were of elderly women in the central province of Markazi, and the other was a patient in the northern province of Alborz, state news agency IRNA said.

"One was an 87-year-old woman with a history of cardiovascular, pulmonary, liver and kidney diseases who passed away after being hospitalised for two days," Abbas Nikravesh, head of Saveh city's medical university, told IRNA.

- Virus spreads -

The other was an 82-year-old with "serious blood and cardiovascular diseases" and died after being hospitalised for a day, he added, noting that she had a history of visiting Qom as her children live there.

According to the health ministry, most of the deaths and infections outside Qom are among people who have recently visited the holy city.

Its spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 16 of the new cases were confirmed in Qom, while nine were in Tehran, and two each in Alborz, Gilan and Mazandaran.

The virus appeared to be spreading to new parts of Iran, as one new case was also reported in each of the provinces of Fars and Khorasan Razavi, as well as Qeshm island.

Despite being Iran's epicentre of the outbreak, Qom has yet to be quarantined.

However, religious events at its main hotspot, the Masumeh shrine revered by Shiite Muslims, have been put on hold while teams were deployed to disinfect it.

Photos published by local news agencies showed masked men in blue uniforms spraying disinfectant on walls and objects inside the shrine, while unprotected worshippers prayed and kissed the ornate structure enclosing a tomb.

- Call for calm -

In other provinces including Tehran, teams have been disinfecting underground train carriages and municipal buses at night, according to reports.

Rouhani called for calm on Tuesday, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.

"An uninvited and ominous guest can come anywhere, but we have to go past it," Rouhani said on state television.

"We went past the tough type B influenza that has killed 16,000 in America this year and more than 100 in Iran," he added. "This coronavirus is no tougher than that."

The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.

Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.

Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centres until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The country has yet to find root causes of the infection, but its health minister has said that one person who died of coronavirus in Qom was a businessman who had made several trips to China.

Saeed Namaki had unsuccessfully pleaded in January for Iran's government to order the suspension of all commercial flights between Iran and China.

In his remarks, the minister said direct flights between Iran and China were now suspended, but the Qom businessman had travelled there "on a connecting flight".